Israelis Lobbied for Fugitive Rich's Pardon

Eric Fingerhut - Washington Jewish Week - Februrary 15, 2001

Many have attributed the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich to his ex-wife's influence as a major contributor to Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party. But public statements by people involved with the case, as well as documents released by the House Government Reform Committee, indicate that strong lobbying by Israel on behalf of Rich may have played the key role in former President Bill Clinton's decision to grant clemency to Rich.

Numerous Israeli government officials -- including outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, outgoing Minister for Regional Cooperation Shimon Peres and Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg -- lobbied Clinton either by letter or personally in the weeks before the pardon was granted. A number of well-known American Jewish leaders joined in the effort as well

In the last week, those defending the pardon have offered Clinton's desire to help Israel as an explanation for what many have called inexplicable. Last Friday, at a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the Rich matter, former Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that he changed his position on the Rich pardon after he heard about Israel's support of it.

Holder testified that after speaking to Rich lawyer and former White House counsel Jack Quinn about the pardon on Jan. 19 (the day before the pardon was granted), "I received a phone call from the White House counsel, Beth Nolan, asking me my position. I am not sure if it was Ms. Nolan or Mr. Quinn who brought to my attention that Prime Minister Barak had weighed in strongly on behalf of the pardon request, but this assertion really struck me. With that significant piece of new information I ultimately told Ms. Nolan that I was now 'neutral, leaning towards favorable' if there were foreign policy benefits that would be reaped by granting the pardon."

On ABC's This Week on Sunday, former White House chief of staff John Podesta reiterated the influence of Israel, noting that as Clinton was making his final decision Jan. 19, the president "heard from Prime Minister Barak," who "made one more plea to consider" the pardon.

And Joseph DiGenova, the attorney representing Quinn, stressed the Israeli government's role in the pardon on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

"The prime minister of Israel became deeply involved in this case and he recommended that a pardon [be granted]," said DiGenova. "This was a very important case to the Israeli government, and they weighed in heavily directly with the president of the United States."

In a phone interview, DiGenova reiterated that Barak had been "deeply interested" in the Rich pardon over the years and that Barak's stance was one of the points Quinn used in convincing Clinton to grant the Rich pardon.

DiGenova also noted that Barak and the Israeli government also lobbied for the pardon of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, but did not receive it. DiGenova said he saw nothing wrong with Barak's efforts on behalf of Rich.

"[The Israeli government] had every right to be asking for help for a citizen of their country," he said. "It was perfectly legitimate."

Even Clinton seemed to think that Barak's support made the Rich pardon palatable. In an e-mail to Avner Azulay, the director of Rich's charitable foundation in Israel, a few days after the granting of the pardon, Quinn writes: "Avner, potus [president of the United States] himself is saying in his frustration about the press coverage that good people like the PM [Prime Minister Barak] supported this."

An Israeli official would not confirm that Barak urged Clinton to pardon Rich on Jan. 19. The official said that Barak and Clinton talked numerous times about "a whole bunch of issues," and on the Jan. 19 call, they could have been talking about any number of matters, from the peace process to the pardon of Pollard.

And Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he had been assured that there was not a "campaign" by the Israeli government to win Rich's pardon, although he was told Barak did raise the issue in a meeting with Clinton.

Documents from the lawyers involved in the Rich case and released by the House committee, though, demonstrate the importance of Israel to the case for Rich's pardon.

In what appears to be handwritten notes/talking points for Quinn's meeting with Clinton, Israel is listed, along with subjects such as "humanitarian record since that time," "inequity," and "Ken Starr" (which seems to be shorthand for an argument that Rich was victimized by an overzealous prosecutor, just as Clinton believes he was victimized by Starr).

The documents released by the House committee, which are primarily e-mails among Quinn, Azulay and Robert Fink, another one of Rich's lawyers, indicate that a number of top Israeli officials joined in the push for the pardon.

In an e-mail to Quinn, Fink and others, Azulay writes: "The PM spokesman confirmed to the Globes that Barak talked with Clinton some time ago about pardoning MR -- as an acknowledgment of his contribution to the well being of the Jewish people in Israel and Diaspora as well as to its national security. From other sources they mentioned that Clinton received supporting letters from [World Jewish Congress Secretary-General] Israel Singer, [Knesset Speaker Avraham] Burg, [Jerusalem Mayor] Ehud Olmert, [former Israeli Finance Minister] Yaakov Neeman, the Chief Rabbi of France, the King of Spain, [outgoing Foreign Minister] Shlomo Ben-Ami, etc. He denied that Barak received any political contributions [from Rich]."

In another e-mail to Quinn, Azulay writes: "Shimon Peres confirms that he talked to potus on Monday, Dec. 11th who 'took note' of his intervention."

The letter to Clinton from Burg, which was also written on behalf of Singer, indicates that Israeli officials may not have been aware of how controversial the case was in the United States.

"Although we are not familiar with all the details of the case, we feel that even though there may have been some mistakes in the past, the time has surely now come to give a new chance to this man who has devoted much of his life to helping others," read the Jan. 9 letter.

That many institutions in Israel were the recipients of Rich's largesse seems to be the major factor in the Israeli government's work on his behalf.

An Israeli official said that Rich "is known to have done significant philanthropic work in Israel ... has a lot of friends in Israel and is very supportive of charities in Israel."

A 1999 profile in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv called Rich "the biggest donator to artistic and cultural institutions in Israel" during the past 15 years. He gave large sums of money to the Bat Sheva Dance Theater, the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, among others. It has also been reported that Rich played a key role in bringing Jews to Israel from Ethiopia and Yemen in the early 1980s and 1990s.

In addition, a memorandum enclosed in the documents released by the House committee states that Rich wanted to help the Israeli government "in fostering the peace process through the development of an economic infrastructure that would include a private investment bank ... for ... joint projects involving Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian autonomy."

One e-mail, from Azulay to Quinn, seems to indicate that Rich backers felt the possible Rich and Pollard pardons were seen as a part of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Noting the "info on JP [Jonathan Pollard]," the e-mail said, "It seems that the topic was discussed in telecons with potus -- within the framework of the peace agreement. JP's freedom is considered as a public-political 'sweet pill' which shall help swallow (or divert public attention from) the more sour pills in the agreement with Arafat. I am sure potus is aware that JP is going to be big trouble with the entire intelligence community and MR could go along with it 'less unnoticed.' On the other hand if he says no to JP -- one more reason to say yes to MR."

Israeli sources say it is extremely unlikely that the Rich pardon was ever discussed as an element of the peace process negotiations.

One top Jewish activist wonders, though, why Israeli government officials seemed to be so interested in the Rich pardon.

"You have to question, given all the other needs and issues [important to Israel]," the official said, "is that really a priority?"

  • See Also: The Clemency Page